Steelers shine again under the Monday night lights, beat Bengals, 27-3
All the Pittsburgh Steelers needed to get for their first win of the season was turn on the lights at Heinz Field and play the final game of the NFL week.
It’s a tried-and-true formula of success for the Steelers.
When it comes to playing at home on “Monday Night Football,” nobody does it better, and the Steelers continued their winning ways in the prime-time showcase with a 27-3 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The win was the 17th in a row for the Steelers at home on Monday night, a streak that dates to 1991. They have won seven Monday night games in a row regardless of venue.
“I had no idea,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We need to play every Monday night then.”
Mason Rudolph received the game ball after he threw a pair of touchdown passes in his second NFL start, helping the Steelers improve to 1-3 and escape the AFC North basement, which belongs exclusively to the 0-4 Bengals. The Steelers also trail division co-leaders Baltimore and Cincinnati by a game, with the Ravens visiting Heinz Field on Sunday.
“We just want to be in the mix,” said defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, who had 2.5 sacks, “and right now we are.”
Trying to avoid going 0-4 for the first time since 2013, the Steelers pulled out the Wildcat formation to help the offense find a rhythm. Jaylen Samuels scored on a 2-yard run while working out of the formation, and he had three completions for 31 yards on shovel passes.
Rudolph mixed in a heavy dose of short passes, often finding Samuels and Conner on underneath routes. Conner scored on a 21-yard catch-and-run in the first half. And when Rudolph decided to go deep, he found rookie Diontae Johnson for a 43-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Rudolph completed 24 of 28 attempts for 229 yards. He was not sacked or intercepted. Conner and Samuels each had eight receptions, and Johnson overcame an early lost fumble with six catches for 77 yards. Nick Vannett, starting in place of injured tight end Vance McDonald, had two catches for 28 yards.
“It’s diversifying the offense more than anything,” Foster said of the Wildcat, which the Steelers used on seven plays. “It’s getting the ball in the playmaker’s hands and stretching the field, just doing a few things to better the offense.
“There’s some yardage we’re missing as far as some players we are missing, and we have to find ways to make that up.”
Not to be outdone, the Steelers defense easily played its best game of the season, holding the Bengals to a first-quarter field goal and 175 total yards. The Steelers had eight sacks, with Heyward getting 2.5, T.J. Watt adding 1.5 and Bud Dupree causing a turnover.
Watt recovered the fumble caused by Dupree’s strip sack to negate a first-half drive in which the Bengals moved into the Steelers’ red zone. In the second half, Mark Barron intercepted Andy Dalton’s fourth-down pass in the end zone to snuff out another threat. He led the Steelers with 11 tackles.
“We’ve got to build and continue to play that way,” Barron said. “This is a good momentum builder and a good confidence builder to go out there and get a win. But we’ve got to keep going, we’ve got to do it consistently.”
At halftime, the Steelers paid tribute to Hall of Honor inductees Bill Cowher, Hines Ward, Larry Brown and Elbie Nickel. When play resumed, they scored touchdowns on their first two possessions to take a 24-3 lead less than six minutes into the third quarter.
The second half opened with the Steelers driving 75 yards in eight plays to take a 17-3 advantage on Samuels’ 2-yard run on a direct snap in the Wildcat.
Held to 18 yards in the first half, Conner opened the drive with a 21-yard burst. Samuels gained 14 on a pass, and Rudolph found Vannett for a 17-yard gain to the Bengals 23. Working out of the Wildcat, Samuels took the snap and flipped to Conner for a 21-yard gain. On the next play, Samuels kept the ball for himself and scored his first career rushing touchdown.
“I just went out and executed whether it was a flip or I was executing it,” Samuels said. “I think I got some pretty good yards with both of them. It looked good out there.”
After a three-and-out by the Bengals, the Steelers got the ball at the Cincinnati 43 following a short punt. On the second play, Rudolph finally attempted a deep pass, finding Johnson open for a 43-yard score with 9:24 left in the quarter. For the rookie wide receiver, it atoned for a first-quarter fumble that led to a Bengals field goal.
“It’s how you react to it,” Johnson said. “I didn’t let it get to me. I bounced back and made plays when my number was called.”
The start of the game mirrored the end of the previous week’s loss at San Francisco. In that game, a fourth-quarter fumble by Conner led to the go-ahead touchdown for the 49ers. This time, Johnson coughed up the ball on the second offensive play for the Steelers, and the Bengals turned the gift into Randy Bullock’s 28-yard field goal and 3-0 lead.
It was a victory of sorts for the Steelers who yielded 14 points to the 49ers after a pair of turnovers in the previous game.
“It was a chance to set the tone,” Dupree said.
The Bengals didn’t score the rest of the way. Dupree’s strip sack with 5:29 left in the first half came after the Bengals had marched to the Steelers 18. In the second half, Barron’s interception snuffed out another drive.
“Our backs were against the wall, and we needed to win,” Watt said. “We needed a good performance defensively.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .